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  • Flourish, Whitney Artell, 2011. Photo: Karen Philippi

Natural Translation

Joyce Lovelace takes a closer look at the weaving of Whitney Artell

If you happened to catch the Textile Society of America’s group show “New Directions” at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles last fall, you were probably stopped in your tracks at the entrance by a stunning weaving from Brooklyn artist Whitney Artell. Called Borderlands, it’s a large hanging that captures a moment of quiet outdoors, near sundown, with waning golden light filtered through trees onto a leaf-strewn ground. That the scene is overlaid with silvery threads woven in the pattern of a chain-link fence – the very symbol of industrial ugliness and urban grit – doesn’t diminish its loveliness at all. In fact, the combination seems natural, even sublime.

“I’m interested in our concept of what nature is,” says Artell, 32. “Is nature this outside force, separate from us as humans? Are we not part of nature? It’s weird to me, the whole nature-culture dichotomy that we have as Westerners.”

In her textile art, Artell finds beauty in a postindustrial aesthetic, one that blends the romantic ideal of an unspoiled landscape – the kind celebrated by Hudson River School painters and glorified in tourism photos – with the everyday reality and detritus of human activity and production. That fusion of raw and organic with built and structured is also embodied in her process, which usually starts with hand manipulation of found materials and finishes with the use of modern technological tools. She’s even found a way to integrate her environmental interests and her personal practice as a maker with her day job as a designer for True Textiles, a domestic fabric mill committed to eco-friendly manufacturing methods.

“I am a craftsperson and a designer and an artist, and they’re all very connected”

“I’m fascinated by industry. I don't think we can really go back and get away from it. So it's important to find ways to work within that system.”  At True, her specialty is health care textiles. “It’s a lot of hospital curtains, which is actually related to what I'm interested in conceptually. I really enjoy creating imagery from nature that's soothing to the patient.”

Her passions are the logical result, she says, of growing up in suburban New Jersey, with trains running past her backyard and a creative mother who taught her quilting and gardening. After getting her BFA in fiber at Maryland Institute College of Art in 2006, she did stints designing apparel for Izod and Nautica, then went back to school, earning a graduate degree in textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2012.

Borderlands, Whitney Artell, 2012. Photo: Karen Philippi

Borderlands was inspired by photos she took that year in Providence while riding her bike along the wooded bay path, with its view of abandoned industrial buildings. She collaged those images together with a mix of dirt, plastic bits, and gesso. “I take pictures all the time. That's a huge part of my process, but it doesn’t convey what I want. There has to be this other step of translating it into materials, to really push the concept,” she says. She then scanned the composition into a digital file, translated that to a weave structure, and produced the final piece on a computerized Jacquard loom. “Jacquard weaving is my main, favorite way of working, how I finally bring together all these disparate elements. It gives you a structure and limitations.”

She’ll use whatever technique suits her purpose, though, from drawing and painting to machine knitting and handweaving on a dobby loom. For a piece called Third Nature, she photographed moss growing on telephone poles, stapled the pictures onto wood, scanned the image, digitally printed it on fabric, then ended up shredding and free-form-embroidering the whole thing, to suggest tattered flyers tacked to a post. Toxic Sublime, another digitally printed fabric hanging, showcases the organic, unexpectedly artful pattern of a piece of pressboard she found. “I thought, ‘This is beautiful, I have to make something about this.’ Then I read about how it's actually made, how toxic it is. Well, that fit, too.”

Toxic Sublime, Whitney Artell, 2012. Photo: Karen Philippi

Artell’s latest works-in-progress are based on her 2014 residency at Wave Hill, a 28-acre public garden in the Bronx. With access to a greenhouse and a studio overlooking the Hudson River, it was a tailor-made experience of nature in a big-city context: “I collected little objects, a lot of ferns. I have them all laid out in my apartment, with photographs and drawings, and right now I’m collaging them together.” Meanwhile, her job with the mill has her always thinking about the artistic possibilities of the industrial Jacquard loom. “I love what I do,” she says. “I'm constantly learning more about weaving.”  


Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor